North Carolina to start voting in a new election — under the shadow of the last one

Democrats hope last fall’s Republican ballot fraud scandal motivates the base in 9th District redo

James E. Nance, center, and Chris Council, right, listen to North Carolina Democrat Dan McCready speak at his campaign office in Elizabethtown, N.C., on Aug. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
James E. Nance, center, and Chris Council, right, listen to North Carolina Democrat Dan McCready speak at his campaign office in Elizabethtown, N.C., on Aug. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 20, 2019 at 6:30am

ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. — Chris Council, a 53-year-old African American landscaper, is fired up about Democrat Dan McCready’s campaign for Congress.

“I’m not a betting man, but he’s going to win this race,” Council said after attending a McCready event in this 3,500-person town, the county seat of Bladen County, North Carolina.

Council is the kind of base Democratic voter McCready needs to turn out in the 9th District, where early voting begins Wednesday ahead of the Sept. 10 special election. 

Bladen County has a special significance too. Along with nearby Robeson County, it was ground zero last year for a Republican ballot fraud scandal that resulted in the 9th District election being thrown out by state officials and a redo election, with a new GOP nominee, being ordered.

President Donald Trump carried the district by 11 points in 2016. When counting completed last fall, Republican Mark Harris led McCready by just 905 votes. Bladen was one of two counties Harris carried, but an unusually high percentage of registered voters had requested absentee ballots.

Eventually, that abnormality was traced to an alleged “ballot harvesting” scheme orchestrated by a consultant working for Harris. Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. is facing charges of felony obstruction of justice and possession of absentee ballots, among other things.

“All this time, people fought for their right to vote, and you got somebody like McCrae Dowless doing what he’s done … it had to come out,” Council said, adding that election shenanigans in Bladen County weren’t new.

It’s a new election this year, with state Sen. Dan Bishop as the Republican nominee facing McCready this time. But in many ways, the shadow of last year’s scandal has shaped the dynamics of this race.

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A ‘stolen election’?

On a recent “education tour” through the eastern part of the district that is home to many African American and Native American voters, McCready often framed last year’s election as “stolen.”

McCready told his crowds that the fraud took advantage of African American and elderly voters, who made up much of the audience at his town halls that weekend. 

For the Rev. Gregory D. Taylor, whose church is in Bladen County, the fraud hit close to home. 

“I had members in my church who received absentee ballots and didn’t ask for absentee,” he said. “We pushed a for new election, and now we got it. So now we we just want to make sure that the people come out.” 

That’s the Democrats’ hope — that anger about what happened and the desire to see justice prevail will motivate low-propensity voters to actually vote.

“We’ve seen politics at its worst,” McCready told a crowd of Native American voters in Pembroke. “This election on Sept. 10 is the people’s chance to get justice.”

At Simon Temple AME Zion Church in Fayetteville, the Rev. Brian R. Thompson Sr. asked worshippers to extend a hand in prayer for McCready. “This election should have been yours,” he said, later embracing the candidate.

If that attitude is widespread, it will go a long way toward helping McCready overcome the partisan leanings of the district, which Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson, using a handicapper’s shorthand, said historically favors Republicans.

“It’s R+9, but there is an advantage for McCready from folks who really feel like they were cheated out of the election in 2018,” said Jackson, who is helping McCready. “That sort of evens the thing out.”

Another big advantage the scandal has given McCready is fundraising. He had the field to himself while Republicans duked it out in a 10-way primary. And long before the state board of elections had even called for a new election, national Democrats were churning out fundraising emails about the ballot fraud. McCready had raised $3.9 million to Bishop’s $1.2 million by the end of June.

Some Democrats would like to hear McCready talk even more about the scandal, which is dwarfed by health care in his paid communications.

“Democrats play too nice,” said Pam Hansen, a 72-year-old from Laurinburg in Scotland County, which McCready won last fall.  

“They’ve got to be reminded of it,” added Scotland County Commissioner Carol McCall. “People’s memories are short. Dan should say, ‘I won the last time, but I didn’t get elected.’”

But the scandal doesn’t resonate as much outside Bladen and Robeson counties, and there’s also the risk that too much talk of it, or talking about it in the wrong way, could turn voters off. 

“I think what has taken place is that it just fuels the thought that ‘my vote don’t count. They run the election,’” said Larry Hayes, chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party. “But it does count. And we can prove now that it does count.”

 A new race

National Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Harris declined to run again. They got more good news when Bishop cleared the crowded May primary with more than 30 percent of the vote, avoiding a costly runoff. 

Now Republican leaders in the state say they’re not hearing much blowback from what happened last year.

“I’m actually surprised it has not cast a bigger shadow,” state GOP chairman Michael Whatley said. He suggested that having a new primary and general election has helped reset people’s minds: “Everybody said, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, that’s over with. This is the race, this is what we’re dealing with now.’”

John Steward, the Republican chairman for the 9th District, said the scandal wasn’t “playing on the minds of voters” — other than the fact that they have to vote again, and have not had a representative in the House since the 116th Congress began in January.

Bishop downplayed the significance of the fraud and argued that Democrats have perpetrated similar crimes. The state board of elections has also investigated alleged absentee ballot fraud tied to the Bladen County Improvement Association, a Democratic PAC.

“It was a pretty isolated matter, even in the race where it occurred,” Bishop said about the ballot collection in the 9th District last year. “And there were not enough affected votes,” he added, “that would have changed the outcome in that race, which was a Republican win.”

Lawyers watching now

This year, neither campaign is making absentee voting a part of its get-out-the-vote operation, though both sides are watching ballots being requested and returned across the district.

“People are seeking their absentee ballots, I’m sure in ordinary course, but we’re not running a campaign to pursue absentee ballots,” Bishop told CQ Roll Call earlier this month.

At a McCready town hall in Robeson County, when a woman asked about absentee voting, the campaign instead steered her toward in-person early voting.

The state GOP has put legal teams in every county in the district to look for abnormalities. The state Democratic Party is deploying a “legal rapid response team” in every county to investigate irregularities, and is establishing a “war room” staffed with a legal team and voter protection director to oversee resources in each county. 

In addition to a full-time lawyer and poll watchers, McCready’s campaign will also have staffers dedicated to monitoring absentee ballot returns for any abnormalities.